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45

Are you ready?

Do I look ready?

Pokrovsky had just stepped out of his banya, the bath hut behind the forge, with nothing but a towel draped round his barrel waist and a grin on his face. Elizaveta Lishnikova wasnt sure whether she found the grin or the massive naked chest more disconcerting. The sun was about to dip down behind the ridge but not before it had set fire to the clouds in the west, a flaming red that draped a glowing sheen over the blacksmiths oiled skin.

Youre beautiful, she murmured. Like Odysseus.

Like who?

Odysseus. A Greek warrior from she was going to say Homers Odyssey but changed it to from long ago.

Pokrovsky laughed unself-consciously, flexing both his arms to emphasise his huge biceps for her entertainment.

Like rocks, he said.

Granite boulders, more like.

He laughed again and put his muscles away, leaving her wondering what they would be like to touch. Until she came to teach in Tivil sixteen years ago, her experience of men had been limited to waltzing with cavalry officers or walking through the gilded gardens of Peterhof on the arm of an elegant naval captain. Even then she had enjoyed the feel of their hard masculine flesh under their uniforms, but they were as remote from Pokrovsky as the bright orange lizards that darted under his banya were from the grey monster crocodiles of the Nile.

Elizaveta was fifty-three now. Wasnt it time she stopped this girlish rubbish? It wasnt as though shed never been asked, despite being as tall as she was. Three offers of marriage shed turned down, much to her parents anguish. She had even allowed one of the suitors to kiss her on the terrace, a recollection of a bristling moustache and the taste of good brandy on his lips, but she hadnt loved any of them and preferred her own company to that of fools.

Pokrovsky, she said in her teachers voice, how old are you?

Thats personal.

How old, man?

Forty-four.

Why arent you married?

Thats none of your damn business.

I expect you frighten the females with those great granite boulders of yours. Youd crush any girl to death with them.

Hah! But the blacksmith was grinning again. The trouble with you, Elizaveta, is that you think you know everything. If youre so damn clever, tell me, how old are you and why arent you married?

Dont be so bloody impertinent, Pokrovsky. Go and get yourself decent at once. Youll be late for tonight if you dont hurry. Dont you know that you shouldnt even be talking to a lady in that rude state of undress?

He roared with laughter and rubbed a great hand across his neat little beard, then ambled off to his izba. Elizaveta took her time heading into the forge, she didnt want him to think she was anything other than calm and indifferent to his gibes. But once inside, she poured herself a stiff glass of vodka and knocked it back in one.

Only then did she permit herself a smile and dare to imagine the heroic Odysseus with a chest like that.



| Under a Blood Red Sky | c